Discourses in Music: Volume 2 Number 1 (Fall 2000)

Canada's Lack of National Musical Identity: Thoughts in Response to Karen Pegley's "Toronto 2000"

By Benita Wolters Fredlund

It is a well-known and all-too-often discussed fact that Canadians do not appreciate their own heroes. The recent outpouring of affection surrounding the death of our former prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, is a glaring exception to a long history of polite apathy towards our historical figures. This is no different in the sphere of music, where our history of non-appreciation can already be seen in the celebrated nineteenth-century example, when, ironically, the composer of our national anthem, Calixa Lavallée, moved to the United States when he could not make a living in Canada.1 Since then, musicians as divergent as John Weinzweig and Brian Adams have had a similar complaint: Canadians do not appreciate their own.2

The fact that Canadians are apathetic towards the music written by their fellow citizens is surely one of the main reasons that we have not formed a cohesive national musical identity. How and why this occurs is a topic which Karen Pegley tackles in her recent article in this journal, "Toronto 2000: Local, National, and Global Intersections." Using the rhetoric of cultural theory, Pegley discusses the state of our national musical identity in terms of the effects of Canadian domestication by the United States and the growing importance of the local and global in a postnational era. While cultural theory is able to offer us insight regarding issues of national identity, I believe she applies these ideas too hastily to the area of music in Canada. My experience was that explaining the issue of Canadian musical identity in this way left me with more questions than answers.

I am uncomfortable, for example, with the way in which said article lumps all musics of Canada together, from Somers to Great Big Sea. To my mind, the issues surrounding our treatment of Canadian popular music and Canadian concert music are vastly different, not to mention the music of Canada's indigenous peoples. Similarly, issues of our “domestication” by the United States and erosion of national identity will effect our musical communities in diverse ways. Pegley cites our recent infatuation with Celtic music as an attempt by Canadians to "recover" a musical heritage in an act of "cultural (musical) nostalgia." (p. 7) This example in fact highlights the disparity between different musics in Canada. Why is it that we feel nostalgic about Ashley MacIsaac, and not about Willan or Weinzweig? How is it that neither the music of Derek Holman nor the Cree people has the same national community-creating effect as Anglo folklore? I would argue that there are other issues besides our need to create a nostalgic image of Canada at play here.

We need to evaluate separately the ability of each of our different musics to build communities, whether locally, nationally, or globally. This important function of music changes radically depending on the type of music involved. Do not the effects of media change significantly whether you are talking about MuchMusic or CBC2? Does not the favoritism in the "global postmodern [for] currency/iconicity" (p. 8) have radically different implications for Susan Aglukark and our twentieth-century hymn writers? I would have preferred Pegley to acknowledge and work out some of these unique applications.

Further, I am not convinced by the argument that Canada lacks meta-narratives and, consequently, lacks a national coherence that would support the "exploration and expansion" through art of these meta-narratives. True, we do not have anything that compares with the American Dream in the US, nor do we celebrate our heroes. Nonetheless, Canadian literature, which, in place of an American Dream may deal with immigration stories, the celebration of multiculturalism, life in small town Canada, and other unabashedly Canadian themes, has come into its own and is renowned world-wide. But while Canadians and non-Canadians alike await impatiently the release of Margaret Atwood's newest novel, most cannot name one single living Canadian concert music composer, and do not know of Canadian popular music artists until they are discovered in the United States. Why do we allow our musicians to be "eclipsed" by our southern neighbours, and not our authors?

And what of the refusal, on the part of the Society for American Music (SAM) to acknowledge Canada as having a distinct musical identity? In reference to this refusal, Pegley complains, "unless academics are willing to acknowledge the importance of insider/outsider distinctions, the question of Canadian musical identity will likely remain an elusive one." (p. 5) I would agree that distinguishing our music from other musics is a vital component to forming a national musical identity-one we have not yet (fully) accomplished. But is this the responsibility of the Americans? It may be frustratingly arrogant for this musicological society to assume that Canada's music is a mere appendage to the music of the United States, but surely the onus falls on us to care enough about our own musical heritage to make the types of distinctions that would challenge this assumption.

But recent trends do not seem to indicate that we, as Canadians actually do care enough to take the steps needed to form ideas about our music. We still do not have our own journal to investigate CanMus topics, the Canadian Musical Heritage Society, which collects music from our early musical history, is in critical need of funding, bands such as the Barenaked Ladies continue to report that they are better appreciated south of the border, . . . the list could continue. Here we are again at the beginning of the problem-that Canadians simply do not care about their music. In light of this, my first reaction to Pegley's call to musicologists gathered in Toronto this November to consider the marginalized communities when thinking about Canadian music was one of frustration: "Don't we have to convince them first to care about Canadian music, full stop?!" But upon further reflection, perhaps the answer to our national identity question (although, in the end Pegley confesses that this question does not really concern her,) does in fact lie in celebrating all the different music that Canadians experience from day to day, from the occasional avant-garde work on CBC to Shania Twain via American television to the local choral hymn sing to children playing instruments at school. Perhaps by accepting these many musical experiences we will finally learn to end our "eternal defensive fear of being ourselves," as Underhill coined it decades ago already, and eventually begin to value our music.3

Benita Wolters Fredlund is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto doing research in Canadian choral music of this century. She also teaches music history and theory at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.


1. Timothy McGee, The Music of Canada (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1985), 74.

2. See John Weinzweig: His Words and Music (Grimbsy: Poole Hall Press, 1982), 7. "Music by living [Canadian] composers is restricted to minor programme item, and barely heard from its sonic shadow of Mainly Mozart, Mostly Brahms." See also "CanCon rules 'a disgrace,' Adams says," Globe and Mail, 14 January 1992.

3. Frank H. Underhill, In Search of Canadian Liberalism (Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, Ltd., 1961), 212.